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Early 2017 MLB Playoff Team Projections If the Offseason Ended Today

Next year will soon be here, but the 2017 Major League Baseball playoffs are so far off that they might as well be in a whole 'nother year. You might be thinking it's too soon to go there.

Or is it?

The 2016-17 offseason still has some boxes to check, including homes for free agents like Mark Trumbo and Jose Bautista. But most of the big names on the open market have already found homes. There have been some blockbuster trades as well.

We thus know where most key pieces fit, making it safe to pretend like the offseason is over and call some early shots for the 2017 postseason. Let's cut this introduction and get on with it.

    

American League

AL East Champions: Boston Red Sox

With most of a 93-win team carrying over from 2016 to 2017, the Red Sox didn't need to do anything big this offseason to be the team to beat in the 2017 AL East race.

Instead, they went all-in.

Minor moves for first baseman Mitch Moreland and reliever Tyler Thornburg rounded out the team's depth. The blockbuster trade for lefty ace Chris Sale, meanwhile, was the Red Sox's upside move. They now have a starting rotation headlined by him and Cy Young winners Rick Porcello and David Price. 

Of course, the Red Sox have a David Ortiz-sized hole in their lineup after Big Papi's retirement. But Sale's arrival should mean they won't need as much offense in 2017.

And even if they do, their lineup should be up to the challenge. Moreland's arrival will keep Hanley Ramirez fresh at designated hitter, and there's all sorts of upside in the Red Sox's young Killer B's: Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

Elsewhere in the AL East, it's hard to tell who's supposed to be Boston's primary challenger. The Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles are missing key pieces from the 2016 rosters. The New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays are teams in transition.

    

AL Central Champions: Cleveland Indians

With the major difference being that they darn near won the World Series, the Cleveland Indians were in a similar position as the Red Sox heading into the winter. They didn't need to do anything big to carry over as favorites in the AL Central.

Instead, they signed Edwin Encarnacion on a three-year contract last week. With a .912 OPS and 193 home runs since 2012, he's an easy upgrade over Mike Napoli in the heart of Cleveland's batting order.

That's the only upgrade Cleveland needed to make. It had holes elsewhere at the end of 2016, but that was mostly due to injuries that should be healed in 2017.

Michael Brantley will be back in the outfield, and Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar will be back in the starting rotation. That's three All-Star-caliber players returning to the fold. Having Andrew Miller, acquired at the 2016 trade deadline, back for a full year will also help.

The concern is a possible hangover after playing so deep into the 2016 postseason. Miller and Corey Kluber are most likely to feel it, as manager Terry Francona asked the world of them last October.

On paper, though, the Indians look more than capable of beating last year's 94 wins. The same can't be said of any other team in the AL Central. Only the Detroit Tigers can match Cleveland's star power, and most of their stars are too long in the tooth to count on.

    

AL West Champions: Houston Astros

Finally, a division trophy that should change hands in 2017. 

The Texas Rangers won the AL West in 2016 but have hemorrhaged more talent than they've gained this winter. The Houston Astros have done the opposite, taking an 84-win roster and fitting it with the nuts and bolts it needed.

Houston needed to lengthen out a lineup that relied too heavily on Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Evan Gattis in 2016. So, Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran were signed on free-agent contracts, and Brian McCann was brought in on a trade.

The Astros will also have former top prospect Alex Bregman and Cuban sensation Yulieski Gurriel in their lineup for the whole year in 2017. After finishing in the middle of the pack in the AL in runs (eighth) and OPS (ninth) in 2016, there's a good chance the Astros will have an elite offense.

Their starting pitching staff is less of a sure thing. Charlie Morton might not be much of an upgrade over Doug Fister, and the trio of Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers have performance and durability questions to answer.

However, even more of the same would be good enough. The Astros finished fifth in the AL in ERA in 2016 despite their starting rotation issues. This was in part thanks to a bullpen that was quietly elite.

There could be as many as three other contenders in the AL West in 2017, but none match the legit championship aspirations of the Astros. Sports Illustrated could be right about them after all.

   

AL Wild Cards: Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers

Neither of this year's two AL wild cards, the Blue Jays and Orioles, are better now than they were before. The same goes for the Yankees and Tigers. The Kansas City Royals are geared up for a last hurrah, but their homegrown core is no longer surrounded by good depth.

This sets up the AL West to be the primary battleground for the 2017 AL wild-card race, with the main combatants being the Rangers, Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners.

The Angels might seem like the odd team out after losing 88 games in 2016. But they've put some nice pieces alongside MVP Mike Trout this winter. Corinne Landrey of FanGraphs wrote about how the Angels targeted run prevention by going for Cameron Maybin, Danny Espinosa and Martin Maldonado. They will also be helped by Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker coming back healthy.

The Mariners have a star-studded offense but are lacking depth around it. The Rangers have a depth question in their starting rotation, but they have just the counterbalances for it.

Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish are an excellent one-two punch, and they'll be backed by a multitalented lineup and a deep bullpen. The Rangers may not win 95 games again, but they won't fall far enough to miss out on a third straight postseason.

    

National League

NL East Champions: Washington Nationals

The 2016 NL East race had a chance to be the National League's best. Instead, the Washington Nationals won it handily over the New York Mets. 

Expect more of the same in 2017.

While the Mets face questions about the health of their rotation and who the heck will play center field, the Nationals have all their big bases covered. The key was acquiring Adam Eaton to play center field, which freed up young phenom Trea Turner to go back to shortstop and set the Nationals up for a dynamic top-of-the-order duo.

"You got Turner and Eaton [at the top of the lineup], fairly similar style of play," catcher Derek Norris, another new addition, told Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. "They’re scrappy, they get on base. They steal bags. They play great defense. That’s kind of what I envision."

Turner and Eaton will be setting the table for Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth. That's a scary proposition under any circumstances. It'll be something else entirely if Harper recaptures his MVP form from 2015.

The Nationals are also returning pretty much everyone from a pitching staff that finished second in the NL in ERA in 2016, including staff aces Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. The one exception is closer Mark Melancon. But new closers pop up all the time, and the Nats have two good in-house options in Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen.

In all, there are no big reasons to believe the Nationals won't match or beat their 95 wins from 2016.

    

NL Central Champions: Chicago Cubs

Sorry to go with such an obvious pick, but...man, the Chicago Cubs are just really good.

When we last saw them, they were winning 103 games in the regular season before snapping a 108-year championship drought with a dramatic comeback in the World Series. That'll do as far as seasons go, and there was never any real threat of the magic going away this winter.

The Cubs did lose Dexter Fowler from center field and Aroldis Chapman from their closer spot. But Fowler should be replaced in the aggregate, defensively by Albert Almora and offensively by a healthy Kyle Schwarber. To fill Chapman's shoes, the Cubs traded for Wade Davis, who was baseball's most dominant reliever in 2014 and 2015.

Otherwise, the gang's all back for 2017. It'll still be Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta atop the rotation. It'll still be Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist in the heart of the lineup. It'll still be Addison Russell and Javier Baez turning double plays up the middle. It'll still be Joe Maddon in the manager's chair.

Like with Cleveland, there is the possibility of a World Series hangover overtaking the Cubs. But the worst that might do is knock them down from 103 wins to 95 or so, which should still be plenty to win an NL Central race that doesn't feature another elite team.

    

NL West Champions: Los Angeles Dodgers

The Los Angeles Dodgers are an incomplete team. They don't have a second baseman. Their outfield and pitching depth charts are complex math problems.

And yet they're no worse than the team that won 91 games and a fourth straight NL West title in 2016.

There was a distinct possibility that the Dodgers would get a lot worse. They dodged that bullet by re-signing Justin Turner to play third base and Rich Hill and Kenley Jansen to help anchor their starting rotation and bullpen.

The various holes the Dodgers still have do stand out. But you can also look at them and see plenty to like.

On offense, the core of their lineup is populated by stable veterans Turner, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal and young guns in Corey Seager and Joc Pederson who might still have some untapped upside.

On the mound, Clayton Kershaw and Hill lead a stable of starters that's as deep as any in the league. Not to be lost in the shuffle is Julio Urias, the 20-year-old lefty who's ready for the next step.

The San Francisco Giants will give the Dodgers a run in 2017. But theirs is a top-heavy roster wherein the role players alongside the scrubs offer little upside.

    

NL Wild Cards: San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals

Picking up where we just left off, the Giants should have no trouble nabbing a wild-card berth as a consolation prize.

They're returning basically the same team that won 87 games in 2016, led by excellent pitching performances by Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto and well-rounded performances from Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. The difference now is that they have a real closer. Melancon should keep the blown-save problem that plagued the Giants in 2016 at bay in 2017.

After the Giants, it's the Mets who have the most upside in the 2017 NL wild-card race. But they also have too much downside to be trusted. Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Matt Harvey are all coming off surgeries, and they don't figure to get much help from a lousy defense.

The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals are the two teams most likely to benefit from the Mets falling short of expectations. The Cardinals don't have as many potential pitfalls as the Pirates. While there are real questions in Pittsburgh's pitching staff, the Cardinals answered the one big question they had by stealing Fowler from the Cubs.

At any rate, there are predictions for all 10 playoff teams for the 2017 MLB season. Now we find out if they can withstand 10 months of general baseball craziness.

    

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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